Content quality in Web 2.0 – Advertising industry asks video hosters difficult questions

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It’s almost touching to see how the up-and-coming Web 2.0 generation has recently been forced against its will to come to terms in its own naí¯ve way with the theme of content quality. Against its will, because the discussion is being foisted on Web 2.0 operators by the advertising industry. They are now hoping to obtain some good advice by inviting prominent experts from the traditional (off-line) film culture to sound off on the subject. At the recent Mobile World Congress 2008, for example, Robert Redford of the Sundance Institute was asked to provide his input on a short-film initiative launched by the GSM mobile phone association. Redford did not appear particularly impressed by the option of watching short films on the innovative 2.4-inch phone display, but he did emphasize the importance of quality content: “I’m on the side of content because technology needs it – the big thing that comes up that will separate the wheat from the chaff will be quality. YouTube and outfits like that are demonstrating film in wonderful ways but also you have the quality issue. If you want to be known for quality then you want to maintain that because that will be your imprimatur in the future.” Notable here is naturally not that someone like Robert Redford would demand high quality, but rather that the issue of quality seems to still be terra incognita for those in the Web 2.0 business.

 

Quality control on video sharing platforms – a hopeless cause?

Millions of video clips are coursing through the Internet these days on YouTube & Co. One of the video hosters’ basic principles is to offer a platform for nearly random content, regardless of its quality. Apart from certain ethic and legal rules, there are no holds barred, in particular when it comes to the formal and aesthetic quality of the films uploaded by users. As there are no filters or evaluation criteria for the input and administration of content, viewers likewise have no way of selecting films according to their quality.

The only quality criterion on video sharing platforms is determined purely quantitatively, by way of statistics: the uploaded videos are sorted in ranking lists according to how often they’re viewed. These rankings reveal how popular individual films are. But popularity is a psychological and social category that does not allow for any inferences with regard to content-related, formal or aesthetic qualities. Popularity rankings only seem to provide quality-seekers with orientation. They direct website visitors’ curiosity to what others before them have been watching. And even as measurements of popularity, the rankings are not especially reliable, because they tend to display a circular amplification effect – similar to a self-fulfilling prophecy. What’s more, for the video hosters themselves these statistical rankings fulfil a completely different, economic function.

 

Rankings – the Internet’s version of viewer ratings

Rankings on video platforms are comparable to television ratings. The original motive for determining viewing figures was to measure a channel’s market share and the reach of individual TV shows in order to provide index figures for the advertising industry. But the results were soon also used as a yardstick for the quality of programme content – and a false one at that. Today ratings even provide orientation for public television programmers when selecting and scheduling programmes, as well as serving as an argument for decisions regarding content. The quantitative measurement of popularity has thus tended to replace qualitative assessment as the standard by which television programming is judged.

This “˜risk’ in principle does not exist for video hosters of “˜social media’, as they do not engage in any kind of programme planning and indeed hardly have any influence at all on content and its quality. Ranking statistics are only important for delivering tangible proof when negotiating with advertisers and for providing objective criteria for the pricing of advertisements.

But this will probably soon change. Interestingly enough, it the advertising industry of all things, or, better said, advertising clients, who have now set off a discussion of the quality of films on online platforms. Pure quantity, for example the number of advertising contacts, is no longer enough for them. Advertisers are increasingly demanding a higher-quality, or at least a more demanding, environment for their product adverts. The providers are thus suddenly under pressure to start thinking about quality control as well as about how exactly they can go about measuring the quality of the content they circulate.

 

Search for quality 1: Quantitative-demographic methods and statistical tools

The first step toward fulfilling advertisers’ expectations was to further refine demographic analysis tools and evaluation methods. We have already described some of these methods and strategies elsewhere, such as in our discussion of the analysis tool Insight in the article “YouTube introduces tool for researching and analysing access”. §§§LINK Archiv <http://www.shortfilm.de/en/short-film-magazine/archive/news/2008.html>§§§ Although these new tools can in fact increase the accuracy of advertising campaigns, i.e. the likelihood that they will reach specific target groups, they are only useful for rating passive users, and not the videos they watch.

The next step was to set up channels with more demanding quality standards, a strategy that delivers quality control, but only indirectly, through intermediaries. The selection and assessment is left up to the cooperation partners, who as external content providers are responsible for what is shown on the channels (see our TOPIC “Short film online – The Golden Age of the Shorts? Part 2″ §§§ LINK hinterlegen: <http://www.shortfilm.de/en/short-film-magazine/archive/topic/short-film-online-the-golden-age-of-the-shorts-part-2.html>§§§

On the initiative of the advertising industry, and not least due to the flagging state of online marketing, quality issues are now on the agenda at nearly every industry conference. One case in point is this year’s EconSM (Economics of Social Media). §§§LINK hinterlegen:

At the same panel discussion, Veoh founder Dmitry Shapiro pointed out that quality is important and that the jerky video clip is now gradually being replaced on video sharing platforms by entertaining videos that people enjoy watching a second time. Ross Levinsohn from Velocity went one step further: instead of user-generated content (“hardest to monetize”) he is now putting his stock in so-called “˜prosumer content’, i.e. semi-professionally produced films …

Just a few weeks after the EconSM conference, YouTube then surprised observers by taking a new tack aimed directly at quality control, applying a method that doesn’t fit at all into the concept of a video-sharing platform. Since June 2008, YouTube has been presenting in a so-called “Screening Room” high-level short films that cannot be embedded in other sites. These are primarily well-known films that have reaped honours at international festivals or at the Academy Awards, but whose festival career is over. In contrast with its usual practice, YouTube actively acquired these films. The company has not divulged any information on its contractual relationship with the filmmakers or on how it selects the films. The press releases announcing the launch, along with a trailer, emphasize only the altruism of the project, which serves to bring good films to a wider audience. The “Screening Room” homepage §§§LINK hinter Screening Room: <http://ytscreeningroom.googlepages.com/home>§§§ is almost hidden. Perhaps because its makers fear too many inquiries and letters? Apparently, there is no concept in place for how and according to which criteria films are to be acquired for this channel in the future. An interview recorded during the launch party with the director of the film department, Sara Pollock, reveals that selection has been quite random to date. She saw some of the films at short film festivals, Pollock said, and others were recommended by friends and colleagues … This is quite a lax, haphazard treatment of content for a major company, from which we can conclude that hosters are simply suffering from a lack of knowledge and experience in this area!

If the operators do not stop trying to come up with more and more sophisticated statistics algorithms and focus on solving the core issue of quality instead, we are bound to witness the decline of the advertising-financed video sharing platform with user-generated content in the near future. A US study of online media use revealed surprisingly enough that the audience also wants to see more quality: 62% of online video viewers said that their favourite videos are those that are professionally produced – compared with 19% who prefer amateur videos (“Online Video”, PEW Internet & American Life Project).

 

Search for quality 2: Semi-demographic methods rely on the “wisdom of the public”

Commercial video hosters who are accustomed to marketing films they obtain for free, and using them to make money, cannot be expected to suddenly turn altruistic. In order to achieve the quality demanded by the market, they are trying, in cases where it is already necessary, to “˜socialize’ the efforts required here as well. The simplest method is to hold competitions promising prize money, in which the “community” makes a pre-selection as (unpaid) audience jury and then a professional jury or a prominent expert chooses the award-winner.

A whole host of other more or less clever ideas are now appearing on the scene as well, exhibiting a mixture of operators’ mistrust in their own powers of judgement, lack of expertise and desire to delegate the actual work involved in selection and judgement to others, if possible at no cost.

Among the more intelligent tactics is the one being pursued by the platform B-Side. Under the motto “the audience is never wrong” (*footnote), B-Side collects audience opinions in order to discover the best films, and then presents them to a worldwide audience. Here once again, the selection is based on viewer voting, but with the small and significant difference that the films up for selection are not user-generated content but rather candidates in the competition programmes of cooperating film festivals. In this way the expert knowledge and preparatory work of the selection committees at the participating festivals is borrowed – if not to say swiped!

Whether or not this strategy will prove successful remains to be seen. At any rate, there seems to be an increasingly widespread feeling in industry, in particular in the advertising industry, that no money is to be made with the repertoires of video hosters like YouTube. This was in any case the opinion of the top managers in online advertising who convened at the RBC Capital Markets Technology Conference (San Francisco, August 2008). At the same time, complaints were heard that the repertoire of platforms presenting professional short films, of which there also a few by now, is too small to satisfy the demand for viral videos amongst advertising agencies and their clients, especially the more discriminating brand-name manufacturers.

One of the better-known purveyors of quality films, the recently founded peer-to-peer platform Babelgum, has already taken the consequences that arise from this dilemma – and made a complete about-face from its previous strategy. Babelgum had only recently come onto the scene, trying to acquire quality films by means of an elaborate film competition and a professional jury headed by Spike Lee. Even before the results of the competition were published, however the company announced that it was converting itself into a digital production studio. This means that Babelgum will in future be producing the films it needs for its platform itself! In concrete terms, 10 million euros are to be invested initially in the production of 15-minute short films.

 

Film experts on demand – Is Web 2.0 a commercial bubble?

At least those with purely commercial interests seem to be increasingly turning their backs on social networking, user-generated content and Web 2.0. After all the hype, it’s quite surprising that strategies once celebrated as being oh-so-innovative are being discarded so hastily in favour of the good old methods that work so well in real life. And it’s not the “˜old economy’ (which has long since bought into Web 2.0), but instead the very founders and young pioneers who are suddenly not only discovering quality for themselves as if it were something new, but who, in order to create, acquire and disseminate it, are likewise finding themselves taking recourse to “˜old’ methods such as the following:

  • Putting on film competitions
  • Holding award ceremonies off-line and unplugged
  • Inviting professional juries
  • Giving filmmakers screenplay or directing contracts
  • Video hosters are buying classic short films or producing their own
  • Film curators and festivals are being enlisted to manage online channels

And YouTube? YouTube will soon be on view at the museum! It is already an object of interest for curators who organize events and exhibitions such as “Curating YouTube” or “Broadcast Yourself”.

The crossover between Web 2.0 and the (old) film scene – actually an inverse knowledge transfer – is gradually sparking the interest of the human resources departments at start-ups, perhaps as a new field of endeavour for film veterans. At present, however, only renowned former film festival directors are in demand: the director of the South by Southwest Festival was recently appointed to an executive position at Cinetic Rights Management, for example, and the former director of the AFI Festival, Christian Gaines, was recruited as Director of Festivals at Withoutabox. Looking through the current job offers at the video hosters, we have to conclude however that many have unfortunately not yet seen the writing on the wall. They are still looking mostly for IT specialists, when what they really need are experienced film previewers or short-film makers 🙂

*Footnote: This famous saying comes from Billy Wilder. It’s worthwhile savouring in its entirety: “An audience is never wrong. An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in the dark – that is critical genius.”
For this and other quotes on the catchword “Audience”, see: URL <http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/audience.html>

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